By Phil Marsh

Demolition of Wolverton Works moves a step closer with first detailed Planning Application by St Modwen – or does it?

Published: 5th March 2016

Development plans now on hold as overall Planning Application is delayed yet again

A parcel of disused land on the south-eastern corner of Wolverton Works is the subject of a detailed Planning Application by the owners, property developers St Modwen. They own the Wolverton Railway Works 38 acre site operated by Knorr-Bremse.

Permission is being sought to build a discount supermarket on the land which is adjacent to a huge Tesco supermarket and just two minutes walk from another discount supermarket.

St Modwen say in their application that there is a ‘proven demand’ for another discount superstore locally but as Tesco did not turn their recent planning approval to expand into reality there is an immediate divergence of retailing opinion here.

St Modwen, as part of their proposal, has said that they will reduce or remove a large section of the landmark ‘Wolverton Wall’ alongside the Works by two metres to just one metre high so that the supermarket will be visible from the road and to improve accessibility. The supermarket would be accessed for deliveries and by customers by an existing road but with the addition of over 130 parking spaces and 40 cycle spaces, traffic congestion will become a serious issue as will the safety of pedestrians and cyclists at this already congested location.

St Modwen has consistently contended that only half of the 38 acre Works’ site is required for their tenants, train renovation company Knorr-Bremse’s operations and that the current buildings across the site are largely derelict and unsuitable for their long term needs. But since the Works demolition plans were unveiled 18 months ago, the Knorr-Bremse workforce has doubled to just under 500 and every available workshop has been brought back into use.

Office conversion

In fact, Knorr- Bremse (KB) has applied for Planning permission to change the 1898 built former Wheelshop, now the Incident Repair Shop into offices. Why do they need Planning Permission? Because the building, like the whole Works, is in a Conservation area and they would like to alter the window arrangement to accommodate the offices.

This is not the actions of a company that St Modwen say will relocate if they do not get a modern rail facility. Given KB’s significant investment around the Works, this is not the action of a company looking to relocate anytime soon - unless forced out by their landlord, St Modwen when the lease expires in two years.

So the St Modwen statement that “As such, there is an opportunity to secure the long-term use of the site for continued railway-based employment, whilst also delivering new uses that will benefit Wolverton as a whole” is being seen as invalid as there is no other available similar rail facility in the UK today.

Heritage matters

St Modwen says that the best way of protecting the heritage of the Wolverton Works “is to ensure that it continues to be used for rail-related business and provides employment for the people of Wolverton. This will be supported through the investment of St. Modwen and Knorr-Bremse in the site, delivering modern and fit-for-purpose premises.”

This view has not been commented on by KB who is actively seeking five-year contracts with the rail industry, not the actions of a company threatening to relocate.

St Modwen says that it is “also keen to ensure that where possible heritage artefacts are preserved and featured positively in the redeveloped site.” To this extent, they have paid for what they call ‘A Heritage Assessment’ on the site which states that there is nothing special there.

The assessment is full of future promises of things that ‘could be’, ‘might be’ and ‘maybe’ but there are absolutely no promises of what they will do regarding heritage if the demolition proposals come to fruition.

The outline Planning Application for the main Works project is almost a year behind the original timescales and St Modwen say that as can often be the case with large-scale planning applications. “More time is required for the Council and St. Modwen to continue to exchange information and discuss this complex and important application.

St Modwen say that KB currently supports around 300 jobs (actually around 500) and they also state that “It is very important to Wolverton that these and future jobs are protected and to ensure this, new and fit-for-purpose premises need to be delivered. The site is not currently fully utilised.”

But all bar the two derelict buildings in the Works are now being used and the investment across the Works by the tenant points to them staying put whatever the outcome.

They said:

Marie Osbourne of Future Wolverton said that they were concerned that St Modwen would be applying for planning permission on individual parts of the site which will lead to piecemeal redevelopment contrary to the Neighbourhood Plan Planning Policy which has an overarching vision for site.

Phillip Webb, who lives within sight of Wolverton Works, has been running a social media campaign against the planned demolition and has submitted three questions to St Modwen. These are:

Why can't St Modwen take a look at the Kings Cross Railway Lands development and see how the existing Victorian buildings have been re-used there to create a new vibrant destination.

We are still waiting for any specific details on their proposals. Their publicity output is full of, may be, could be, possibly, but not will be. Do they even know what they are designing or demolishing yet?

Is St Modwen absolutely certain Knorr-Bremse will relocate or close the business if they are not provided with a new rail facility at Wolverton? Where will they move to? There is no other similar railway site in the UK they can move to as all former railway works are working to capacity and will be as the demand for their work will continue for at least 25 years renovating trains. Has St Modwen studied this aspect of the UK rail market?

No reply was the answer

Mr Webb said that St Modwen has twice refused to provide detailed answers to these questions sent to their Strategic Communications Director Jo Sistern who replied on February 24th:

“I am writing to acknowledge receipt of your various emails and to confirm that at the current time, we do not have any further updates for you. However, we expect to be able to provide you, and all of our other stakeholders and interested parties, with an update on progress in relation to the planning application for the Wolverton Works site.

The Heritage Statement

The St Modwen Heritage statement makes much of the Grand Union Canal. This is nowhere near the proposed discount supermarket and locals are wondering why it is included the application.

It also says that the Site is closed off to the general public and this visually isolates this area with this clear separation made all the more evident by the imposing brick boundary wall offering limited views of the buildings within the Site. The Works buildings are hidden from sight immediately behind the three metre high wall from street level but from across the road they are clearly visible.

Again, objectors to the scheme cannot see the relevance to this and St Modwen contradicts itself later in the statement by saying that “public realm as views are only obtainable in certain locations of the Conservation Area.”

The ‘Wolverton Wall’ St Modwen says is only broken up by a blocked off timber door, which used to form an entrance for workers. This is factually incorrect as it was used for goods deliveries and not for staff.

Objectors also say that given the success of Knorr-Bremse, the construction of a supermarket which may bring 25 jobs, would seriously hinder rail expansion at Wolverton therefore potentially limiting expansion creating many more skilled jobs. The proposed location of the supermarket has already had to be revised once because the original plans severed a vital railway line within the Works and this is why the supermarket design had to be altered.

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